Comprehensive Exams: The Lack of Authenticity

Recently, I had a conversation with a doctoral student where we talked about the comprehensive exam experience. Comprehensive exams are never a fun time during the doctoral process, and they always produce some stress. However, I’d never really thought about them in terms of their authenticity until this conversation.

Now, each university/program/etc…will have its own way of doing comprehensive exams. But usually they involve writing one or more papers over a specified amount of time. Those papers are read by a committee, and it’s decided if the students passed, failed (and has to do a complete re-do), or needs to make revisions. Some places may require an oral defense of the exam.

On the surface, it would appear that our comprehensive exam process is favorable in terms of being authentic. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but I initially saw it as skewed that way. Our students have to write two papers. Both papers should help them advance ideas and understandings related to their dissertation. That’s a good thing. That’s a real and authentic purpose.

At least one paper, but perhaps both, should be viewed as publishable manuscripts. This doesn’t mean we expect the student to produce a manuscript that is ready for review at the end of the writing time (which I think is 60 days). That’s not possible. We just want students to take at least one manuscript and move it forward to getting it published once the exam is over.

Well, that’s good, right? That’s using comps for an authentic purpose. As far as major exams go, this seems like it has some nice authentic components built into it, and it does.

So why am I writing this post?

Well, here’s where you might disagree with me, but let’s talk…..

helpThe student pointed out how utterly isolating the comprehensive exam experience was. See, while students are writing they are free to consult notes, review readings, etc….but they are not allowed to speak to anyone about their work. On one hand, this makes sense. It’s an exam. We know how exams typically get done around here: lock yourself up and don’t come out until you’re done and don’t you dare talk to anyone because that would be cheating.

But let’s think for a moment about our own work and how we approach writing.

  • Do you ever talk to others about ideas you are having difficulty articulating?
  • Do you ever bounce your findings or argument off of others just to see what they think and have to say?
  • Do you ever consult others for people to read that you might not be aware of?

I bet you do. Ok, I do.

If you are isolated in your work is it a choice you have made? Can’t you get out and find someone to talk to when you need to?

When I run into problems with my work be it with research design, implementation, feeling stuck in understanding a problem, whatever….I reach out to others. Sometimes I reach out to specific people, and other times I just blindly reach out on twitter or FB and see what I get. Usually I get something amazing.

But nobody does the work for me. People give me ideas. The ideas are then new problems for me to think and work through, but they push me in my thinking. No one writes my papers for me. No one tells me what to say. People just have conversations with me about my work. It is through those conversations that I am able to wrangle my ideas and maybe even untangle some of the dead ends I have hit.

This is normal.

This is good.

Sitting alone in an isolation tank with my problems is not. And it is never what I would encourage anyone to do.

So this brings me back around to comprehensive exams. Ultimately, the student has to put their thoughts into writing. Is it a terrible thing if – during the writing process – they speak to someone? What are we trying to assess here exactly with the exam? Some might argue that this is a writing exam, and we need to assess how a student writes on their own. But real writers don’t write on their own. They each have their own well defined process, and we cannot standardize that process for everyone.

So what do you want to see? Do you want to see papers produced from working in isolation or do you want to see what papers can look like when students engage with their writing process during an exam? Do you want to encourage students to develop a writing process as they are developing the rest of their scholarly habits?

I know that’s what I want to encourage. And I’m not saying do away with these exams. But I do think there’s reason here to consider what we want to learn from students through these exams. I do think we should pause and reflect on if we are ok with the isolation we might be promoting.

What do you think?

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